“You Can’t Make Me!”

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“You can’t make me!” I said emphatically.

Head lifted up. Determined expression in my eyes. Hands on the hips.

I was a defiant, insolent child. I was even more defiant as a teenager. It was not at all unusual for my parents to give me a directive and for me to respond, “You can’t make me!” That was our family process. We each played our roles well, and as a result, defiance became a part of my personality.

That was a very long time ago and, no doubt, I have made some personality changes. More like seismic shifts! Life brings on seismic shifts for most of us, and I am no exception. The series of seismic shifts that rearranged me over the years left me with a rather quiet, docile personality. My acquiescent ways can sometimes make me seem a lot like a doormat.

Being a doormat, though, is most definitely not an option. Just as advanced years made me somewhat docile, advanced years have also given me the courage to, at least occasionally, stand up straight and scream out, “You can’t make me!” 

Truth is: I’m still that insolent little girl, and I don’t see that as a bad thing.

You see, here’s how it happens. In fact, it happened for me last week. I met a rather formidable obstacle on my path. I despaired. I grieved. I berated myself and diminished my own worth. I gave up my sense of hope.

But then it happened, as it has so many times before. Today something rose up within me that felt like determination. It felt like a dogged resolve with enough power to propel me forward just when I thought I had been hopelessly pushed back. I never know where that determination comes from, but I can always feel it rising. I know that at least a part of it comes directly from that insolent little girl. But mostly it seems to be what I reverently call a “God-thing”— which is a rather powerful happening that causes me to experience God’s grace fresh and new, just when I least expect it.

If an obstacle has pushed you back, even pushed you all the way to the ground, remember the words of Jesus giving warning and comfort to his disciples: “Take courage. I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) 

Remember, too, that inside of you, there just may be a “hands on the hips” kind of person just about to feel the inner determination rising.

One Step Past Possible

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All journeys begin with one step, just one step, usually into the unknown. Each step that follows goes farther into a journey that most often is made up of twists and turns and sometimes stones in the road. It takes a little faith, embarking on a journey.

Still, faith does not make things easy. But faith does makes them possible. Mildred McAfee says something very wise about moving forward in faith. She says “If you have a great ambition, take as big a step as possible in the direction of fulfilling it. The step may only be a tiny one, but trust that it may be the largest one possible for now.”

Tiny steps remind me of the book microShifts by Gary Jansen who suggests that transforming your life happens one small step at a time. The book’s message makes it quite acceptable to take micro shifts toward something in your life. As for me, microshifts are important. I have made dozens of microshifts to get comfortable with the idea of a kidney transplant.

Microshifts are still shifts, and that means change that we sometimes fear. Faith slips in on us at this point. There’s a tiny verse in the Gospel of Luke that those of us who are followers of Christ grab onto. We believe the message because we want to. We hold the message close to our hearts because we need to. 

For with God nothing shall be impossible.

That’s it. Luke 1:37. Simple and clear. Without superfluous language, Luke asserts that nothing is impossible. And about the “with God” part. Well, I’m guessing that Luke adds that to remind us that faith includes a contract between us and the God of the possible. 

So I am thinking today about what is really is possible, globally and personally. For instance, is it possible to end hate-motivated violence? It is possible to end racial divides? Is it possible to make sure schools are safe places? Is it possible to protect the earth from the effects of climate change? Is it possible for this nation to hold free, fair, respectful political campaigns and elections?

Global questions like those are endless — so many questions, so few answers.

But then I also ask what is possible on a personal level. What’s possible for me or you? Is it possible to live out our faith on the margins where hurt prevails? Is it possible to carve out time for contemplation, meditation and prayer?

And then there’s the question I often ask myself. Is it possible to envision a day of better health? I am thinking specifically about a kidney transplant. Right now, a transplant seems to be one step past possible, meaning that it’s just a little more than possible that it will happen. The possibility , however small, brings up feelings, emotions that have begun to escape from the place inside me that had them locked up. 

I finally believe that a kidney transplant for me is probably going to happen. The stars have aligned. A brave and magnanimous donor has been evaluated by Piedmont Transplant Institute  in Atlanta where both donor and recipient (me) will have the surgery. The National Kidney Registry will search for matches among paired exchange program participants. Even surgery dates are being contemplated. It’s real! After almost five years of wondering, and doubting a transplant would ever happen, a transplant is imminent.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I feel panic and fear. My heart beats a bit faster these days. I am taking lots of deep, cleansing, centering breaths. My heart is preparing for a surgery that could well offer a new sense of freedom for me. By coincidence, blasting through my speakers I am hearing one of my favorite old country tunes, Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.” It is reminding me that I lost a certain amount of independence the day I got sick in 2014.

So today feels a bit like an independence day is coming for me. It feels like independence to think about a future of not being tethered to a dialysis machine for eight hours a day, every day. It feels like independence to not have permanent tubing emerging from my body. It feels like independence to be able to travel without the strain of taking large medical equipment and multiple boxes of dialysis supplies.

As with anything medical, things can go wrong. There are numerous disqualifying factors that could still preclude a kidney transplant. But right now, living donor and recipient are fully evaluated and the transplant is at least one step past possible. This is a good place to be.

Resurrection!

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“Art: Resurrection Morning” by James Martin

As people often say, things come and go. Today the resurrection came, so clearly in our worship service and especially in our Sunday School class. When we are gathered in community, the sharing of our lives becomes resurrection for us all. So for us resurrection came, but it did not go.

It remains in the resurrection stories we share and in the ways we bear witness to the grace-full acts of God. The stories around the circle were about places of darkness and death and about the resurrection that always follows. For some, physical health reaches a dark place and we pray for the resurrection to come in their lives. For others, emotions around fear are on the surface and we pray for the resurrection to overcome the fear. Still others grieve for friendships that feel like the end, and we pray for the resurrection they need. Others mourn the loss of friends to death and, as we pray for the healing of those left behind, we also rejoice in the promise of resurrection for those that leave their earthly life.

Death comes in myriad ways. But resurrection comes, every time, to shatter death’s darkness in ways that seem like mighty wonders and wondrous acts of God. Ready or not, resurrection comes to us and makes its home in us. We are resurrection people because we made the choice to proclaim to the world that Christ is risen! 

The Scripture gives us so many stories of resurrection. Sacred texts allow us to look into the lives of many people who have looked at death and have come through it to resurrection. And in our own lives, we can bear witness to the glorious reality that we know the One who is “the resurrection and the life,” that because we believe in the Christ, we will never die. (John 11:25-26)

As you enjoy Easter and lean into the resurrection that never leaves you, think on these Scripture texts:

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” 

She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

— John 20:11-18 (NRSV)

 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 

— 1 Peter 1:3-7 (NRSV)

 

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

— Acts 4:33 (NRSV)

 

*James Martin’s art is available at http://www.veritasse.me.uk/artists/james-martin/

Calamities and Grace

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Psalm 57 has been called “a prayer of safety from enemies.” When we believe that danger threatens to harm us, body and soul, that is the time that makes us cry out to God with the fervency of the Psalmist. Hear the Psalm’s second verse.

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me!
For my soul trusts in You;
And in the shadow of Your wings I will make my refuge,
Until these calamities have passed by.

Ah, the calamities! So ever-present with us in uncertain times. Calamities! The synonyms are many and ominous:

Disaster, catastrophe, tragedy, cataclysm, crisis, adversity, blight, tribulation, woe, affliction, evil.

And those are just the first few listed in my trusty Thesaurus. There are many more, describing a state of being that is frightening, all-consuming and dangerous. Such a state of being we want to avoid at all costs. We want to take refuge swiftly before evil overtakes us.

Can you recall a time when your life was in calamity mode? So many situations can place us in calamity mode: illness, relationship problems, addictions, loneliness, aging, financial distress, the loss of a loved one and so many other situations of distress.

We feel as if “enemies” are chasing us, unrelenting in their threat. We run like the wind, if we can, to get away from them. But all too often, we look behind us and an “enemy” is right there, looming large before us and bringing us face to face with the cataclysm we feared. So we are now in the clutches of adversity, and we wonder if where we are is where we’ll ever be.

We are very good at laying out our calamities, lining them up one by one for all to see. Because when others see our calamities, we believe they will help us. We believe that our friends can help us escape our calamity du jour. In their help, we place our hope. Trouble is, sometimes we’re disappointed because hope does not often come through friends. Those around us have their own calamities. When they don’t (or won’t) reach into our troubled place and help us, we despair. What can we do? Where will we turn?

The truth is that when our soul trusts in God, we will wake up from our nightmare and find that we are sheltered in the shadow of God’s wings. Safe from calamity. Nestled in a place of refuge. Brokenness repaired. Watching gratefully as calamity after calamity passes us by.

What a grace is that! What unmitigated compassion! What sheer loving mercy from the God who might just as well have left us in the danger of our calamities.

Thanks be to God for every safe refuge, from every calamity. Amen

Tender Mercy

E8260192-9BC4-47D0-B6F8-7DECCE4828F0Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high
will bring the Rising Sun to visit us,
to give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.

Luke 1:78-79 (NRSV)

There is no better time to breathe in these words from sacred Scripture: “the tender mercy of our God.” What we see around us compels us to cry out for the tender mercy of God — for the people who are living with agonizing need at our borders, for children taken from their parents, for families running from the effects of tear gas, for the changing of the climate and its devastating fury on communities, for people losing their lives because of gun violence, for young black men incarcerated for small crimes with long sentences, for people suffering through illness and poverty and homelessness. 

Cover them, God, with your tender mercy.

There is still more in this Scripture. Some translations say “The Dayspring from on high has visited us.” But in this New Revised Standard translation, we hear words that remind us anew of God’s tender mercy. Moving words that remind us of our hope in the “Rising Sun who has visited us!”

Tucked in this brief text is the divine reason for the visit. The words are not ambiguous at all, not hard to understand, not veiled in mystery. The Rising Sun’s visit has brought “light to those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death.” And finally the Sun has shone “to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And so we live in the light of this promise, knowing that the Rising Sun will visit us again and again, whenever darkness covers us with the struggles of life. God will not fail. In our times of difficulty, no matter how serious they are, we will feel — fresh and new — the tender mercy of God who will most assuredly send light to us when we find ourselves in life’s darkness, when we need to be guided in the way of peace.

That is the message of Advent.

Two Women

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Painting of Shiphrah and Puah

This blog post is about two brave women who literally changed the world. You may have never heard of them, but they are worth knowing. Here’s how the story of the women begins.

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. (Exodus 1:8-14)

The Hebrew people had immigrated to Egypt because of life-threatening conditions in their homeland. They thrived in the new land and their population grew. For many years, they lived peacefully in Egypt, and made great contributions to its well-being.

Then a new king arose, a king who began to spread fear about the immigrants. They were multiplying, becoming powerful. “Soon this new race will outnumber and overpower our own! So we must close ranks in fear,” he said.

Sadly, we are hearing a similar message from our president. But we won’t expound on that today. This is a story about courage.

We constantly hear leaders talking to us through our televisions — experts on various topics, members of congress, politicians, pundits. One thing shines clearly about most of them: they exhibit not an ounce of courage and conviction. For many of them, maybe most of them, the rhetoric is about their own interests, never about taking a stand against evil or injustice, never about the cost of doing what is right.

So may I tell you a story about two courageous women you may not know? Thousands of years ago two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, said “NO.” Shiphrah and Puah served Hebrew women who were anticipating childbirth. The Pharoah commanded the midwives to kill all the baby boys born to Hebrew women in Egypt. An ancient method of power and control!

There are only six verses in the whole Bible about these women, but their actions led to the salvation of the entire nation of Israel.  Shiphrah and Puah were in charge of all the Hebrew midwives in Egypt while Israel was enslaved in Egypt. One day, Pharaoh called Puah and Shiphrah to him and told them,

When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.”

At this point in history, Egypt was the largest kingdom and the Egyptian Pharaoh was considered the most powerful ruler in the world. In fact, the Egyptian people regarded Pharaoh as a leader appointed by their gods. Imagine all the leaders in the world today. Now imagine that all of their power was all given to one single leader and that’s approximately how powerful Pharaoh was — and this particular Pharaoh wasn’t very nice.

Now, the most powerful ruler in the world has just ordered Puah and Shiphrah to kill every baby boy born to a Hebrew woman. What happened next is one of the most courageous things we could imagine. Let’s look at the whole story recorded in Exodus 1:15-22, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.  So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

These two midwives had spent their lives bringing new life into the world, and now they were asked to snuff out that new life as it was about to draw its first breath. “Not a chance!” they declared with courage welling up inside them.

No! Shiphrah and Puah said “No.” Because they were called to choose life, not to end it. They acted swiftly and shrewdly. They lied, in fact, and said this to Pharoah. “What can we do? The Hebrew women are giving birth so fast that the babies are born before we can get to the birthing tents.” 

All the while, they were coaching these immigrant Hebrew women, holding their hands and catching their babies as they made their way into their complicated, inhospitable world.

Shiphrah and Puah said “No!” And among the children they saved was the baby Moses. You know the one. He was chosen and anointed by God to free the Hebrew people from Egyptian oppression and lead them back to their beloved homeland.

Today we have the opportunity to say “No” to all that is unjust. What does that mean for us? What does it mean to summon the courage to help bear life into this complicated time?

Perhaps it means not buying in to the fear some want us to feel about the caravan of refugees who are approaching our borders. Perhaps it means advocating for their well-being in every way we can, declaring that we refuse to demonize them, and understanding the heart of parents who feel they must flee from the dangers of their homeland.

Perhaps it means supporting efforts to reunite the immigrant children that are still separated from their parents.

Perhaps it means that you and I must find ways to choose life instead of death, and hope instead of fear.

I don’t know if the story of Shiphrah and Puah story speaks to you, but I hope you will ponder it and hear its truth.

There will always be new kings who arise among us and decide to deal harshly with certain groups of people. But we do not have to go along with their plans. In fact, we must not go along with their plans and instead follow the courageous path of creating justice for all people.

May God help us to make it so. Amen.

 

 

 

“Justice Could Have Called but Mercy Came”

 

82A65550-B655-4B99-9635-7EE6D11BC6A2I am a church woman, and I was a church girl — religious to the core. I have been in churches, and served on the staff of churches, large and small — Greek Orthodox churches, Episcopal, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Baptist. Mostly Baptist. A 50-year Baptist and an ordained Baptist minister for 26 of those years.

I enjoy so many fond memories of my time in all of those faith traditions. Some poignant times, some hard times, some joy-filled times, some hilarious times — all made my journey a very rich one. So I will share with you just one funny story. I once was a part of a women’s choral ensemble in one of our Baptist churches. We sang lovely hymn arrangements, some contemporary pieces, and a few high-brow anthems. But at rehearsal one night, our director pulled out a piece of music that was rather mind-blowing. We looked at the lyrics and began to giggle. Soon we were laughing uncontrollably as we saw the opening line of the song’s refrain: “Justice could have called but mercy came instead.”*

Turns out, this was a bonafide gospel song, a quartet song, and we thought ourselves much too musically sophisticated to sing a gospel quartet song. But this is the interesting thing about those song lyrics that seemed to us so funny. In applying my theological and doctrinal knowledge to those lyrics, I determined that the sentence is true. It is very true that God can confront our sins and flaws with justice, but instead covers them with mercy. How full of grace is that truth! How many times have we needed God’s touch of mercy and grace! How many times has my sinfulness convinced me that mercy is out of my reach, that grace is impossible for me!

Pope Francis clearly understands sin in this way. Shortly after he proclaimed the Holy Year of Mercy in 2015, he was asked why humanity is so in need of mercy. He replied, “considering our illness, our sins, to be incurable, things that cannot be healed or forgiven. We lack the actual concrete experience of mercy. The fragility of our era is this, too: we don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet. We need mercy.” 

When all is said and done, the words of that gospel song are true. Indeed, “justice could have called, but mercy came instead.” It is my hope and prayer that all of us will find redemptive mercy in the God of grace who offers us love, patience and forgiveness.

 

* Written by R.R. Christian as listed in the Catalog of Published Music

Friends

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Watercolor art by Kathy Manis Findley

There is nothing as enriching to life as genuine friendship. Not the superficial kind of friendship that boasts hundreds of “friends” on social media. Not the fickle kind of friendship described as a “fair weather” friendship. Not the exploitive kind of friendship that befriends someone only if there is something to gain by it. 

I’m actually talking about a specific friendship with a friend that is dearly special to me. But I am also talking about friendship in general. The kind of friendship I’m talking about is tried and true friendship that stands up to the test of time. It’s friendship that remains even though miles separate friend from friend. It’s friendship that cares through the years and deepens as time passes. It’s friendship that gives of your best to another person without thought of getting something in return. It’s friendship that is sweeter because you have allowed another person to know the real “you.”

Through the years, I recall many friendships that occurred in threes — three friends that were virtually inseparable so that when you saw one, the other two were close by. Of course, the friendship of three fluctuated with opportunity, going to different schools, living in different neighborhoods, and even those little spats that occurred every once in a while. Within those three, there were always the constant two — the twins, so to speak. For a time, I had this kind of friend.

So what did we do to build such friendships? That’s easy. We talked about boys and first loves, rivals for the boys we liked, as in girls that we didn’t like. We talked about going on dates, who was the cutest boy, and which boy liked which girl. We discussed the ways we might let a certain boy know that one of us liked him. We planned attendance at the next dance and how we could finagle to sit by a particular boy in church. We talked about going to Panama City to find a new crop of boys at the famous Hangout. We talked about clothes and shoes, especially shorts, and how we would sneak the shortest shorts by our ever-watchful parents. And of course, we planned times of spending the night together — eating, laughing, sitting in the dark around the lighted Christmas tree, listening to Otis Redding’s  “Try a Little Tenderness” and talking about boys all night long.

Sounds rather superficial, right? Maybe. But the truth is, in those relationships we learned how to share ourselves. Those giggly teenagers, who shared every intimate secret with one another while acting completely and unabashedly silly, grew up to be good and wise and strong women who still needed friends with whom to share their most intimate secrets. And guess what? We do. We still do. Across the miles, we interact with one another as if we have always been together. We share a love that is sweet and comforting.

Deep in myinnermost spirit, I know I can still count on the friend I made as a teenager. Apparently, ours was a bond that could not break. So thanks, Suzanne. I love you, then and now.

“Let America Be America Again”

FA175E90-7908-4E1C-8B8C-76AE402ACC80On this day — the day we usually spend celebrating America each year — some of us are lamenting because we don’t feel much like celebrating. The children and families separated at our borders leave us feeling deep-down-where-it-hurts grief. And it is not that we look at the border fiasco as the crisis “du jour.” No. The toddlers in detention centers have come on the heels of the Parkland shooting and the protests it sparked around the nation and throughout the world when all of us cried out in unified voice, “Not our children,”

Again and again, we have witnessed tragedies inflicted on the children. We have  wept over them and have seen the horror that left our children unprotected and in harm’s way. There are, of course, other issues before us that cause grave concern, but it’s the children that leave us speechless and breathless. If we are a free and just nation at all, then we simply cannot abide the thought of children being in danger.

So what do I do today? What do I celebrate? Do I display the American flag in my front yard? What do I say about today? 

I have determined to say nothing further, but instead to offer the poignant poem written in 1935 by American poet Langston Hughes.

Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today — O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?

Surely not me? 

The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does that not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

America!

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

Fighting with Demons, Wrestling with Angels

F01A76CE-6B4A-450D-B178-93665F765C71I am digging deep to find strength for the living of these days. Certainly, I am dealing with health issues and aging, enough to wrap a comforting cloak of depression around my self. I am deeply concerned about a dear family member who is working through sorrow. I am sad that people come to the abyss of life feeling that the only answer for them is to take their own lives.

My faith is filled with questions . . . How does faith really work? How can I place myself in God’s comforting presence? How do I pray, for myself, for my family and friends, for this nation, for the world? And most of all my question is simply “Why?”

I hear news reports that cause me sadness. I see photos of parentless immigrant children that break my heart. I hear the voices of individuals who still demean women. I watch senior adults in our nation trying to live without adequate healthcare. I share the shame of homeless veterans who placed their lives in harm’s way for this country. I hear the ringing of gunshots echoing from past school shootings, a sound in my spirit that I cannot silence.

I listen to the voices of young school children who say they are afraid to go to school, and Imsee their anxious parents who just want to hold their children close, far away from danger. And I hear the loud, clear and confident voices of teenagers marching to Washington to demand change. That is the best sound of all, one that should give us all hope.

And then there are the things I don’t see or hear — like the voices of congressional leaders that prefer comfortable complacency over uncomfortable confrontation. Where are their voices of reason? Where is their collective wisdom that could well ease some of our nation’s unease?

That’s it. I’m a bit down about it all. And the honest truth is this: my religious rituals don’t really help. My faith, held for so many years and through so much turbulence, is faltering. My prayers seem to float into the unknown, unheard and unanswered. My laments are in vain. I fight with the demons that tell me my faith will not hold and I wrestle with the angels that whisper, “There is yet a quiet hope that does hold you in holy, gentle hands.”

That’s what I bank on.

Often, I am comforted and inspired by the writing of Bishop Steven Charleston. In this brief writing, he eloquently expresses the difficultly in finding a way to faith.

I am a thinking being not a religious robot, 

And I often find my way to faith,

Finding the holy in questions,

Seeking the sacred in lament;

Wrestling with angels before the dawn finds me . . .

— Bishop Steven Charleston

If we are honest, we will admit that we find the holy in our questioning and we stumble upon the sacred in our laments. Perhaps that is faith’s true path, not the easy path we expected. In the end of all things that bring despondency, we still find our way to faith. We find the holy again and again. We find the sacred over and over even through our laments. 

Faith begins to live in us while we are drowning in sorrow. No, we do not get to the very center of our faith by acting as religious robots. We get there when we stand courageously against our demons and wrestle with the angels that have the power to lift us from the depths.